Eating better has long been a top New Year’s resolution. No surprise, given that the turn of the calendar follows weeks of consuming too much holiday ham, buttered rolls and cream pie – a perfect recipe for feeling bloated, groggy and ready for change.

But as we all know, January’s best-laid plans for healthful eating often fall prey to February’s pizzas, chicken wings and chocolate cupcakes. The reason why, say experts, is that too many turn to short-term diets rather than permanent lifestyle changes.

“Dieting never works, because you’re always going to go back to what you did before,” said Lisa Silverman, who runs the Five Seasons Cooking School in Portland and teaches students how to prepare macrobiotic meals centered on whole grains and vegetables.

“The lifestyle changes are what really need to occur,” said Frank Giglio, a classically trained personal chef from East Waterboro who prepares dishes that promote health using whole, seasonal foods.

Meg Wolff, a two-time cancer survivor and a cookbook author from Cape Elizabeth, said the best approach to making lasting dietary changes is to take small steps – such as always eating breakfast, adding extra vegetables to each meal, eliminating soda or cutting out fast food. Once one healthful eating habit is firmly establish in your routine, you can add another.

“If I had not had a life-threatening illness, I wouldn’t have had the shock needed to make such a big change,” said Wolff, who credits her switch from the standard American diet to one based on whole plant foods for keeping her cancer-free.

A similar approach, advocated by Giglio, is to upgrade the quality of your existing food choices. For instance, you could switch from white bread to 100-percent whole wheat bread, swap out tub margarine for cold pressed vegetable oil, change from processed table salt to trace mineral rich sea salt, or choose organic rather than conventionally produced food.

Another common pitfall happens when family and friends belittle, ignore or are openly hostile to the dietary changes someone is trying to make.

“If you’re a mom with three kids and a husband and none of them wants to support you, it’s likely not going to work,” Giglio said.

But it is possible to get the whole family on board. Erin Dow, a Winthrop chef who works with school districts to improve lunchroom offerings, knows how to entice kids to try new foods. She said the best way to get the whole family to support a move toward healthful eating is to take “a couple solid dishes your family likes and learn to nail them in a healthier way.”

This could mean using black beans instead of beef in burritos, making a creamy pasta sauce with pureed chickpeas rather than cheese, or replacing lettuce with kale in your salad.

Many who want to eat better can get tripped up at the grocery store, where aisles of packaged foods sport health claims such as “made with whole grains,” “now with antioxidants” or “contains omega-3s.” Too often, these claims are marketing gimmicks attempting to mask a nutritionally inferior food.

“Don’t take what’s on boxes as the total truth,” Giglio said. “For example, fresh blueberries are a lot better for you than a packaged food with dried blueberries that you reheat in the microwave. Set aside what the box says and learn to read the ingredient list of all the food you’re buying.”

When reading those labels, be on the lookout for long ingredient lists, words you can’t pronounce or ingredients never found in a home pantry. All are signs of highly processed foods that shouldn’t make it into your shopping cart.

Dow said it’s better to turn to third-party nutrition guides rather than rely on advertising hype from food manufacturers. These navigation guides include the ANDI score used by Whole Foods Market, the Nutrition IQ system used by Shaw’s and the Guiding Stars program used by Hannaford. Dow is the expert chef for the Guiding Stars program.

In the spirit of making permanent diet changes in the new year, we asked these four nutrition experts which foods we should add to our kitchens and which ones we should avoid or eat in much smaller quantities. The resulting lists contain both well-known and unusual ingredients ready to supercharge your health in 2012.

EAT MORE . . .

ALGAE: An ancient food, algae can be harvested from both the oceans and freshwater lakes. Common types of this tiny, nutrient-dense food include spirulina and chlorella, and they can be purchased in powder or capsule form.

“These foods help to deal with radiation by removing toxins from the body,” Giglio said. “They’re high in vitamins A, B, K, iron, and are great blood builders. They’re also a complete protein.”

Silverman said, “Because the topsoil is so depleted in our country, we need a way to get minerals, and algae is a whole food source of micronutrients.”

Add algae to smoothies, salad dressings and dips.

BEANS: One of the earliest plants cultivated by humans, beans can be found in almost endless varieties, including black, kidney, pinto, Jacob’s cattle, yellow eye, lentil and black-eyed peas. Beans can be harvested early and eaten fresh as green beans or dried for storage and cooked before eating.

Beans contain high levels of fiber and protein. While they’re low in calories, they’re packed with the complex carbohydrates our bodies need for fuel.

“Beans are equal to meat, and they’re  more economical,” Wolff said. “Because they’re low in fat, they’re also low in toxins. The carbohydrate they do have will keep your blood sugar even for a longer amount of time.”

Use beans in soups, salads, casseroles, burritos, stir fries or as purees and dips such as hummus. Baked beans are the traditional Maine way to eat this superfood.

BROWN RICE, QUINOA AND OTHER WHOLE GRAINS: High in fiber and complex carbohydrates, cereal grains provide a solid foundation for any diet, and are best eaten in their whole state.
True whole grains retain their intact kernels, which can be ground to make flour, losing some nutrients in the milling process.

“Gluten-free is not going away,” Dow said. “So familiarize yourself with non-wheat grains. For instance, quinoa tastes good, it looks cool, and it feels awesome in your mouth.”

“Eating whole grains helps even out your blood sugar,” Silverman said. “They contain lots of B vitamins, and they’re supposed to help with depression.”

“Because people don’t have whole grains in their diets, they’re craving simple carbs,” Wolff said.

Also try oat groats, millet, amaranth, hulled barley or spelt berries. Quinoa and amaranth require the least amount of cooking.

COCONUT OIL (UNREFINED): Maligned for years because of its high saturated fat content, recent research is revealing the health benefits of coconut and its unrefined oil, which is high in beneficial lauric acid. Coconut oil can aid digestion and boost immunity.

“It’s an amazing food with so many health benefits to it,” Giglio said. “It’s antiviral and antimicrobial. Coconut oil boosts the metabolism, which will help you lose weight.”

Use coconut oil as a replacement for butter or margarine in baking. Because it is a stable oil, it is ideal for high-heat cooking.

KALE AND OTHER DARK LEAFY GREENS

Considered one of the most nutrient-dense foods, kale, like all dark leafy greens, is an excellent source of beta carotene, vitamin C, vitamin K and calcium. A member of the cabbage family, it is eaten both raw and cooked.

“Dark leafy green vegetables are really helpful for liver health,” Silverman said. “In macrobiotics, they say eat dark leafy greens every day if not every meal.”

Also try collards, bok choy, Swiss chard, watercress and dandelion.

MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS: Mushrooms have a long history of use in non-Western medical traditions. Most help boost the immune system, while each provides different health benefits.

“Mushrooms are something that can be taken over time, and the longer you take them the better they’ll work,” Giglio said. “Many mushrooms are adaptogens, which means they adapt to your body’s needs.”

“Shiitake mushrooms offer immune system-enhancing properties,” Wolff said. “Even having them once a week or twice a week is a big plus for your immune system.”

Try shiitakes, chaga, reishi, cordyceps, turkey tail or maitake in fresh, dried or tincture form. Use in cooked dishes, add to stocks or drink as tea.

SEAWEED: Packed with protein, beta carotene, vitamin C, iron, iodine, magnesium and other trace minerals, seaweeds are low in calories and high in fiber. Seaweeds also contain vitamin B-12.

“Kelp is high in calcium and magnesium, and those are two minerals most Americans are deficient in,” Giglio said. “You’ll get more calcium from kelp than from drinking milk, especially hormone and antibiotic treated milk.”

“Seaweeds also help cut heavy metals and help lower radiation, and are essential for anyone on chemo,” Silverman said. “The best place to get seaweed is in cold water,” including the Gulf of Maine.
Try nori, kelp, wakame, kombu, hijiki or dulse in soups, salads, sushi rolls and broths.

WILD FOODS: Often viewed as weeds, wild foods can be found growing in gardens, fields and forests. Loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, wild edibles in Maine range from the well-known, such as wild blueberries and fiddleheads, to the lesser known, such as cattail shoots and milkweed pods.

“If people could learn to eat dandelion greens, we wouldn’t have half the health problems we have,” Dow said.

You will pay a pretty penny for organic dandelion greens in the grocery store, but you’ll find them free for the taking in your lawn. Enjoy dandelion greens sauted with garlic, steamed or in a salad.

EAT LESS . . .

GENETICALLY-MODIFIED FOODS: Never tested on humans before entering the food supply, the affect of GMOs on health is largely unknown. However, independent scientists have long raised concerns about the potential for GMO foods to trigger allergies and promote disease. Because the U.S. doesn’t require GMO foods to be labeled, it can be hard to avoid these transgenic foods, particularly because an estimated 70 percent of processed foods contain GMOs. The only way to avoid them is to buy organic foods, which are barred from containing GMOs.

“A lot of research is starting to show this is not good for your health,” Giglio said.

Products made with non-organic corn, soy, wheat, beet sugar and vegetable oils have the highest likelihood of being made from genetically modified plants.

HIGHLY PROCESSED AND CHEMICALIZED FOODS: Snack foods, convenience foods, sugary cereals, soda, fast foods and candy have been highly processed from their natural state, and are stripped of nutrition and often filled with chemical additives. “You can eat a certain amount,” Wolff said. “But you don’t want it to be the mainstay of your diet.”

REFINED SUGARS AND ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS: Lots of calories and zero nutrition is what you get when you eat refined white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Artificial sweeteners may have fewer calories, but their laboratory origins have fueled the ongoing controversy about possible links to disease.

“Sugar is an anti-nutrient,” Silverman said. “It not only doesn’t give us anything, it takes other things away. Sugar decreases the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness.” A better choice is to use maple syrup or locally sourced honey.

MEAT AND DAIRY: It’s no secret that the societies that consume the most animal products have the highest rates of disease. These days, the problem is compounded by the unnatural way in which most animals are raised. Concentrated feeding operations confine animals in tight quarters in a disease-filled soup of their own waste. To keep them alive and make them grow faster, farmers pump large quantities of hormones and antibiotics into them, leading to growing rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and early onset puberty in children.

“Milk creates phlegm in the body,” Silverman said. “It causes asthma and allergies, and contributes to being overweight.”

“Grass-fed is the best option,” Giglio said. “There definitely is a reality that buying premium cuts of meat is more expensive. Instead, learn to eat less meat and fish.”

Or as Dow pointed out, “if something costs more, you’ll be satisfied with less.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila